More and more attorneys are choosing to leave the full-time practice of law to craft a flexible legal career on their own terms. There’s nothing new about this type of legal career; the concept of a contract lawyer has been around for decades (if not centuries). Thanks to technology and the emergence of the gig economy, the traditional contract lawyer is now often referred to as a freelance lawyer and has many digital tools to aid them.
Freelancers come from all sorts of legal backgrounds: burned out big law associates, attorneys choosing to care for young children or elderly parents, retired or semi-retired lawyers who truly love the law. No matter what path leads you to freelance work the benefits of being able to control your own, flexible legal career are plentiful. Work when, where, and how you want—as long as you have Wi-Fi. Set your own schedule to accommodate the other demands of daily life.
As Co-Founder of LAWCLERK, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with many freelance lawyers from all over the country. Based on those conversations, here are my top five tips for anyone planning to launch their own freelance career.
1. Don’t Read Minds.
When it comes to gig work, a skilled freelance attorney has the potential to work with several different hiring attorneys during any given day. Every attorney has a different communication style and work preferences. Don’t assume that because attorney A wants you to write in a very conversational style that this same tone of writing will work for attorney B who prefers a more formal, scholarly tone. If you want to excel with a freelance career don’t make the mistake of making assumptions about what an attorney does or doesn’t want. Ask the attorney about their preferences so that you can deliver the best possible work product.
2. Beat the Clock.
This tip really should go without saying but be certain to complete work on time and early if possible. If you’re not clear on what the deadline is, ask. If you aren’t clear if the “deadline” is for a rough draft or a final document, ask. If you think it’s an initial draft deadline but it’s really the final deadline that will change the timeframe for your work process. If you come across any problems along the way, let the attorney know. This means if you get sick or have a family emergency you need to get in touch with the hiring attorney right away to see if the deadline can be extended or if the work should be reassigned. Don’t wait until the last minute—deliver early to achieve success.
3. Best Foot Forward.
You never know when a single freelance gig can turn into recurring work from a repeat client, something that can help solidify a long-term freelance career. This is why it’s vital to always submit your best possible work product. In that same vein, you can make a big impression on the hiring attorney by always being polite, professional, and prompt. This is equally important if the hiring attorney turns out to be well, a jerk. Even if you don’t enjoy working with a particular attorney and never want to work with them again, complete the project in a professional manner. Don’t forget that the hiring attorney may love working with you and refer you work from other attorneys in the future.
4. Stay in Your Lane.
One of the reasons a lot of freelancers tell me they love doing freelance work is that they get exposure to many different types of work in different areas of law. This helps keep the workload fresh and is definitely a big reason why charting a freelance career can be appealing. My only word of caution here is not to veer too far outside your area of experience and expertise. For example, if you worked in a firm doing immigration work for many years before becoming a freelancer then you will be able to produce your best possible work related to immigration issues rather than switching to IP law or dabbling in real estate. Only accept freelance work for which you have the knowledge and confidence to do the best job possible.
5. Know Your Boundaries.
At the onset of a freelance project, get clear on the scope of work the attorney needs you to complete to determine if you must be licensed in that state. Is the attorney asking you to do something like take a deposition or talk to clients? Those matters require you to engage in the practice of law, and to handle those types of gigs you need to be licensed—and in good standing—in that jurisdiction. However, if the attorney needs help with things like research or drafting a document then these are things you’re able to do under that hiring attorney’s supervision, which opens the doors for you to accept freelance work from attorneys outside of the jurisdiction(s) where you are licensed. Be mindful of whether the work you are being asked to perform requires you to be licensed in that state and proceed accordingly.
Communication is obviously the interwoven thread through all these best practices. Communicate, communicate, communicate, and when in doubt, communicate more. Today’s attorney is not limited to the traditional brick and mortar, office-based employment. Thanks to cool technology—and endless free Wi-Fi—freelance lawyers can mold their career based on their own terms.